Desert Velvet


also known as turtleback
or velvet turtleback
Psathyrotes ramosissima


This neat little plant is not quite a belly flower: it is very low growing (five inches tall at most), but it can spread pretty wide. It’s variously described as a small shrub, annual forb, or short-lived perennial. On many desert plants, the foliage is as attractive as the flowers, and so it is here: thick, fuzzy, silvery sage-green leaves are mounded so as to resemble the back of a turtle. The inflorescence consists only of disk flowers (no rays).

Apparently it’s pretty common in the Mojave desert at low elevations, but for some reason I saw only this one plant, in a wash near Beatty Road.


And that’s it for the Death Valley report. There are a few more plants that I haven’t positively identified yet (five of them probably Cryptanthas), and I don’t have great pictures of them. There are still about 200 landscape photos to go through; eventually I’ll be posting a dozen or two of them on my other website (


Odds and Ends

Two more plants I found blooming in Death Valley. At first I found neither of them interesting, but the more I read – or the more closely I looked – the more I liked them.


sticky ringstem, valley ringstem
Anulocaulis annulatus

This plant is endemic to the Mojave desert. It’s a perennial with a shrub-like growth habit. The flowers are quite small; you really have to zoom in to see them.








yellow nightshade groundcherry
Physalis crassifolia

There are several plants producing edible fruits in the genus Physalis: tomatillo and Cape gooseberry. Also “groundcherry”, which I’ve seen on menus (and my plate) in trendy restaurants, but I’d hesitate to say that this particular groundcherry is one of the edible ones. As with the Apiaceae, the Solanaceae (deadly nightshade family) has some tasty, culinarily important species as well as poisonous ones.

This range of P. crassifolia is limited to the desert southwest. Like sticky ringstem, it’s a perennial with a shrub-like growth habit.

Have a look at this abstract from the Journal of Natural Products; it seems that P. crassifolia can produce compounds showing “potent antiproliferative activity” that may some day be used for treating certain cancers.


Two More from the Asteraceae

Into the final few days of Death Valley reports…20160308-_DSC0135

pebble pincushion
Chaenactis carphoclinia

This pretty flower is an annual growing to two feet tall (at best), and is found in the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora deserts of Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. All species in the genus Chaenactis are found only in the western US.




Mojave ragwort, Mojave groundsel
Senecio mohavensis

And this not so pretty flower is also an annual, also growing to about two feet tall.  It’s found in the Mojave and Sonora deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Senecio is mostly a western genus but two species appear in the east, including pilewort, which, confusingly, is no longer considered to be in the genus Senecio. Those darn splitters have been at it again.


Two More Evening Primroses


brown-eyed evening-primrose
Chylismia claviformis ssp. claviformis
(right and below)




shredding evening-primrose
Eremothera boothii ssp.condensata



Both of these species in the Onagraceae are annuals found in various deserts of the American West. I spent some time trying to find interesting facts about them, but came up with very little. According to Pam Mackay’s Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Wildflowers, Trees, and Shrubs, brown-eyed evening primrose has an extremely high photosynthetic rate. Also, the plant is favored by white-lined sphinx moth larvae, a fact that reminded me of a few photos I took of caterpillars, like this one:


There seems to be some morphological variation in these, so I’m not positive of the identification. But it was hanging around the brown-eyed evening primroses…


Two More Death Valley Shrubs


desert holly, Yuma desert holly,
silver holly
Atriplex hymenelytra
(formerly Chenopodiaceae)

Desert holly, a shrub that can grow to three feet tall, has leaves that bear a slight resemblance to the familiar Old World hollies (Ilex species), but they aren’t closely related at all. It can be found in the Mojave desert in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, where it’s listed as Salvage Restricted.  It’s highly tolerant of alkaline soils and is highly drought resistant.


Going on a tangent… Arizona has different conservation nomenclature from the Eastern states. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension, there are four levels of protected native plants. “Salvage Restricted” is the second level: “This large group of plants are subject to damage and vandalism. This is a large list of species with 32 plant families represented, the largest being numerous species of cacti.”


sprucebush, pygmycedar,
desert fir, desert pine
Peucephyllum schotii

At a first, distant glance this plant looks similat to creosote bush, but up close you can see that the leaves and flowers are clearly very different. Despite the common names, it isn’t a spruce, cedar, fir, or pine.  It’s in the aster family, but has only disk flowers (no rays). It grows in the Mojave and Sonora deserts and can reach heights of 10 feet.


Two Death Valley Shrubs, One Community


As I drove and hiked and poked my way through eastern Death Valley, I kept seeing this shrub. It seemed like it was everywhere. Later research confirmed my informal observations: 70% of the Mojave desert is covered in well-spaced stands of it, and indeed the plant community is named for it: creosote bush scrub, which occurs in elevations below 3,500′ in areas with very hot summers, winters that don’t quite get to freezing, and extremely low average annual rainfall amounts (0-2″ in dry years, up to 8″ in wet years).

Larrea tridentata (Zygophyllaceae) is evergreen, can grow up to ten feet tall (usually it’s much shorter), is considered weedy by some authorities, and ranges from California southeast to Texas.  The more I read, the fascinated I became. Here are a few random facts.


Common names include creosote bush, governadora, greaswood, guamis, hediondilla, and confusingly, chaparral (confusing because it is not a part of the chaparral plant community).

Creosote bush was used by native peoples as a medicinal for treating respiratory conditions, various inflammations, viral and fungal infections, arthritis, and many other things. It has analgesic, antidiarrheal, diuretic, and emetic properties.

The plant is allelopathic, meaning it engages in chemical warfare, by releasing chemicals through its roots to inhibit the growth of other plants, including, possibly, other creosote bushes.

Most young creosote bush plants are established under a canopy of burrow bush.

In addition to sexual reproduction, creosote bush reproduces vegetatively. The resulting clonal colonies can live thousands of years, making them among Earth’s longest-living organisms. One colony has been estimated to be 9,400 years old.


Another species is co-dominant with creosote bush in its community; that one is known by the common names white bursage, burro bush, and burro weed.  I didn’t see as many of these plants, but as soon as I saw one up close, I had an unpleasant suspicion that it was closely related to a much-hated plant back home.

I was right.  Burrow bush is Ambrosia dumosa (Asteraceae), in the same genus as giant ragweed (A. trifida). And just like giant ragweed, it produces a very fine pollen that’s dispersed by the wind, making it a potent allergen.


Burrow bush grows in the Mojave and Sonora deserts.  It grows to about three feet tall, and is drought-deciduous (meaning it drops leaves in extremely dry conditions).




For more information about these plants, their communities, ecology, and so on, visit the following websites:

US Forest Service: creosote bush  burrow bush
Medicinal Plants of the Southwest
California Plant Names


Endemic – restricted to one area. A species that is endemic to a place (Death Valley, for example) will be found nowhere else.


On my last morning in Death Valley I decided to re-visit a few highlights. I went to see the globemallow again, and to see if the nearby beavertail cactus buds had opened yet. Nope. But before that, I visited a particular trail that had a good number of gulches with a good variety of flowering plant species. I was on my way back to the car when I caught sight of this.



Death Valley sage, Salvia funerea, Lamiaceae


Death Valley sage is of course endemic to Death Valley.  It’s a shrub that can grow to about 4 feet tall, but usually is shorter. This specimen was a little more than knee-high. The pale-green foliage looks silvery from the short white hairs all over it (hence another common name, woolly sage).

I’d seen a few of these over several days, but this was the only one flowering. Those purple flowers are slightly smaller than a pinky-nail.